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10 Twins questions: Kepler’s return; the hidden risk of a bullpen game; Wade Jr. vs Cave

Did you hear the news? The Twins and Yankees are facing off in the ALDS beginning Friday in New York.

There are a lot of storylines, obviously, with this one. Here’s a look at 10 questions facing the Twins as they prepare to take on the Bronx Bombers.

What’s the latest on Max Kepler and Marwin Gonzalez?

The Twins have a ton of question marks regarding dinged up players. Half of their ideal Game 1 lineup is dealing with injuries that may prevent them from performing at their best, or seeing the field at all. The assumption seems to be that both Kepler and Gonzalez will be ready to go Friday. The Twins, though, have been very tight-lipped on injuries. That’s a smart approach to take—there’s no reason to give out more information to the media than necessary—but it also means we really don’t know how close either player is.

Other than one pinch-running appearance on September 21, Kepler hasn’t played since the Twins’ doubleheader sweep of Cleveland, when he may have aggravated his scap injury. The Twins appear to be playing it conservatively, giving him as much rest and rehab as possible heading into the playoffs. But we also don’t know just how badly Kepler’s hurting. The fact that he wasn’t given any at-bats in Kansas City to shake off the rust suggests he wasn’t close to being 100% last weekend. It would be surprising to not see him in the lineup Friday, but it’s also not a certainty, given how little we know about the severity of the injury.

“I’m excited, I’m all positive,” Kepler said Tuesday about the prospect of making his return in the postseason. “It’s just special.”

Gonzalez returned from an oblique injury on September 16, played six games, and was scratched from the lineup on September 24 with oblique tightness. He hasn’t played since. Like Kepler, it would appear the Twins are taking a cautious approach with Gonzalez, opting to give him as much time to heal as possible over getting him at-bats in games that don’t matter. Again, though, the lack of information means we can’t assume that he’s definitely ready to go.

Ultimately, it would be surprising if either wasn’t in the lineup Friday, but until the ALDS rosters come out, it’s wait-and-see on both.

Did one swing secure C.J. Cron’s spot on the ALDS roster?

Cron’s been battling a nagging right thumb injury that’s sapped his power and production in the second half. To his credit, he played hurt pretty much the entire second half, grinding it out when the club needed him as injuries piled up.

Cron’s given himself up for the team in September, taking a statistical hit going into his final year of arbitration. In 53 at-bats in September, he had no home runs and one double heading into the season’s final game. For that reason, it may have been up in the air whether he even made the ALDS roster, especially if Gonzalez and Kepler are back.

One swing may have changed that. In his first at-bat Sunday, he hit a screaming line drive over the left field wall for a home run. It was the first time in a long time we’d seen him barrel up a ball like that. Can one at-bat can make a difference in whether or not a player makes a playoff roster? Normally I’d say no, but Cron really needed to show he still had the ability to hit for power, after a month in which he didn’t do it at all. I’d wager he’s in the lineup Friday if lefty James Paxton starts for New York. The four days off should do that that thumb a lot of good.

Can Luis Arraez get healthy enough to play by Friday?

It seemed like a crushing blow last Saturday, when Arraez collided with Willians Astudillo and was carted off the field in tears. There was fear, initially, that he may have blown out a knee or torn a hamstring. Instead, it’s a grade one ankle sprain. Arraez’s status is very much in doubt, but the fact that it’s even in question is a positive sign for the Twins. If he’s at 70% or so, it would certainly be worth it to have his bat in the lineup.

Two important notes on Arraez:

1. If Paxton starts Friday, Arraez likely wouldn’t be in the lineup even if fully healthy. Jonathan Schoop would figure to get the start at second against a lefty. Paxton starting Game 1 would thus give Arraez an extra day to rehab the ankle.

2. Arraez’s game isn’t predicated on speed—he’s only an average runner—so an ankle injury, while obviously impactful, may not be quite as detrimental to his game as it would be for someone like Jorge Polanco or Eddie Rosario. Obviously, the ankle needs to be strong enough to still play productively in the field, but Arraez provides the most value in his elite bat to ball skills, which shouldn’t be impacted too badly by an ankle issue, particularly since the injury isn’t on his plant foot.

How effective will the injured players be if/when they return?

The downside of the Twins’ cautious approach with Kepler and Gonzalez is that a significant amount of time has passed since they’ve had big league at-bats. For Gonzalez, it will be about two weeks. For Kepler, three weeks. Kepler has had just nine plate appearances since September 8; Gonzalez has had just 26 plate appearances since August 27.

It’s a delicate dance. On the one hand, you need your key players to get healthy. On the other, if their timing is off when they return due to lack of action, they may not be the players they were pre-injury.

The Twins talked about getting Kepler at-bats against Twins pitchers this week. They may do the same with Gonzalez, and possibly Ehire Adrianza. That will help, but nothing can simulate true big league at-bats. The Twins, then, may be trotting out a Game 1 lineup that features multiple players who haven’t played in some time (Kepler, Gonzalez), are playing hurt (Arraez, Cron), or both. It’s not an ideal situation for the Twins, but then no team is perfectly healthy in October.

When’s the bullpen game?

All signs point to the Twins having a bullpen game at some point in this series. Randy Dobnak figures to start that game, perhaps facing the Yankees lineup once. After that, expect to see Zack Littell, Trevor May, Sergio Romo, Tyler Duffey, and Taylor Rogers all make an appearance, assuming the game is close.

In my view, Game 2 makes the most sense to employ this approach. With Jake Odorizzi’s extreme fly ball tendencies, it’s probably wise to start him in Game 3 at Target Field, rather than in the bandbox that is Yankee Stadium. That means a bullpen game in either Game 1 or 2. By starting Jose Berrios in Game 1, you leave him on track to come back and start a potential Game 5 on full rest, or possibly start Game 4 (likely only if the Twins were down in the series) on three days rest. If you wait until Game 2, he’s essentially off limits until Game 5. Better to have arguably your best pitcher available for Game 4 if needed.

Who will be the last pitchers to make the roster?

Berrios, Odorizzi, Dobnak, Rogers, Romo, Duffey, May, and Littell are givens. Cody Stashak, Brusdar Graterol, and Kyle Gibson should make it. That leaves either one or two spots that are up in the air, depending on whether the Twins carry 12 or 13 pitchers.

One of Lewis Thorpe/Devin Smeltzer figures to make it as a long man. I’d probably give the slight edge to Smeltzer due to his makeup. Thorpe has better stuff, but has shown a tendency to sometimes get rattled in big games. Nothing seems to faze Smeltzer, who’s pitched well repeatedly in high-leverage spots.

Candidates for the final spot(s) include Ryne Harper, Fernando Romero, and Martin Perez. You may disagree, but I think I’d go with Romero here. Romero’s had a disappointing year at both Triple-A and the big leagues. He’s shown flashes of brilliance, but struggled badly with command.

Unlike Harper and Perez, who’ve both been hit hard in the season’s latter months, Romero has the stuff to get a big strikeout in a key spot. Now, the Twins have six or seven options they’d likely turn to before any of Romero, Perez, or Harper. But, let’s say the Twins have already burned all of those options, and are in a major jam where they really need a strikeout (bases loaded, one out, in a tie game, for example). Of the three, Romero is by far the most likely to induce swings-and-misses and get that big K. Now, he’s also the most likely of the three to give up a walk or throw a wild pitch. But for the final spot in the ‘pen, I’d rather have an arm with electric stuff and a huge amount of variance than one with mediocre stuff.

LaMonte Wade Jr. or Jake Cave?

Assuming Kepler and Gonzalez are on the roster, the Twins should have one outfield spot to hand out to either LaMonte Wade Jr. or Jake Cave. It’s not an easy choice. Both are left-handed bats who can play all three outfield positions effectively. Both have the speed to be a pinch-runner late in the game, and both played well in September. Cave has more power, while Wade has the superior eye.

The short right field wall at Yankee Stadium makes Cave a tempting pinch-hit option for Schoop or Cron late in the game against a tough righty. Ultimately, though, I give the slightest of edges to Wade. There aren’t many players who either would pinch-hit for, and Wade’s shown really strong baserunning instincts in his time in the big leagues. If the Twins value Wade’s defense more highly than Cave’s, he’s probably the logical choice. It will be a very difficult decision either way.

How will the Twins handle their bullpen if Jose Berrios has a short start in Game 1?

Berrios getting knocked out early in Game 1 would present Rocco Baldelli with a really difficult dilemma. Let’s say Berrios gets pulled in the fourth with the Twins down 5-1. In a short series, the natural decision would be to bring in your top relievers and keep the game close, particularly given the Twins’ potent offense. If the Twins plan to have a bullpen game in Game 2, though, it complicates things significantly.

No team wants to concede a playoff game, especially in a 5-game series. But if the goal is a split in New York, do you want Taylor Rogers and Tyler Duffey wasting bullets in a four or five run game, knowing they’re going to be called on to pitch again in Game 2? Rogers, in particular, hasn’t been as good in back-to-back outings.

This scenario is one of the inherent risks in having a bullpen game. If Berrios goes six or seven, everything more or less falls into place, even if the Twins lose Game 1. But an early exit combined with no traditional starter lined up for Game 2 would put the bullpen, and Baldelli, in a very difficult spot.

How much playoff experience do the Twins have?

A surprising amount. Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, Romo, and Schoop all have significant playoff experience. Gonzalez and Romo, of course, were key contributors on World Series winning teams, and Cruz was a key player on two teams that lost in the World Series. Schoop has appeared in the playoffs in three different seasons. Even Cron appeared in three playoff games for the Angels.

It was only one game, but a lot of the Twins’ young core was around when the Twins played New York in the Wild Card game in 2017. Rosario, Kepler, Polanco, Berrios and Rogers all appeared in that game. That experience should help as they once again enter a hostile environment in New York.

Who’s the Twins’ MVP?

Everyone else seems to have weighed in on this, so I guess I will as well. There are a number of worthy candidates on this team, and no clear-cut choice. Ultimately, I would give it to Jorge Polanco.

Polanco’s been the only Twins player to stay healthy all year. He has 704 plate appearances on the season. No other Twin has even 600. That durability, combined with elite production (.295/.356/.485) at a premium defensive position gives him the edge. His defense hasn’t been great, but it has been serviceable. He leads the team in bWAR (5.7) by a significant amount over Nelson Cruz (4.3) and Max Kepler (4.0). He’s not the most talked about player on the team, but the consistency he’s displayed was critical to the Twins winning 101 games.

Here’s how I’d rank them:

  1. Jorge Polanco
  2. Mitch Garver
  3. Max Kepler
  4. Nelson Cruz
  5. Taylor Rogers
  6. Luis Arraez
  7. Miguel Sano
  8. Jake Odorizzi
  9. Jose Berrios
  10. Byron Buxton


Previous Story Zulgad: What will Twins’ roster look like for ALDS? Here’s one man’s guess Next Story Wetmore: 4 questions the Twins will have to answer to pick the ALDS roster